Hat tip to FS, forgot about the heist. A 2016 article.
Americans are focused on the wrong border. It’s not Mexico, with all this dubious talk about building a wall, but Canada, with its Mounties, and comedy writers who move among us, betrayed only by the occasional mispronunciation of “about,” that threatens our way of life. If this nation was not founded on the free flow of syrup, it should have been. And now, as anyone with kids can tell you, the price of syrup has remained stable and high; it’s more expensive than oil. Is it Arab sheikhs who did this, Russian oligarchs? No. It’s Canadians, who, organized into an ironfisted cartel, have established a stranglehold on that honey-flavored elixir.
It’s an answer that would bring joy in Quebec—authenticity is what FPAQ is selling. Canadian maple is real, while all those high-fructose Jemimas are as phony as the bottle that is the body of Mrs. Butterworth. In a world covered in plastic and going to hell, there’s nothing more honest than sap. In Canada, people tell you the trappers got it from the Indians, who got it from their ancestors, who got it from the gods. It’s the death and rebirth of the forest turned into wine. If consumers know that, it’s partly because of FPAQ, which has turned Quebec into a brand.
Have there been side effects to all this success? Has the federation, with its quotas and its methods of control (quotas must be enforced), reaped its own sticky harvest?
Start with those high prices. By making syrup production seem like a good business instead of just an eccentric survivalist hobby, it has brought a great increase in production, much of it in the U.S. Just like OPEC, which, with its near monopoly, spurred the search for new sources. With oil, it’s the deep deposits reached only by fracking. With syrup, it’s forests in Vermont, New Hampshire, and especially New York State, which, Canadians tell you with a shudder, has three times more maple trees than all of Quebec’s maple farms combined. The French province produces 72 percent of the world supply, but if the Americans ever make the push to self-sufficiency, French Canada is cooked. In 2015, Quebec’s minister of agriculture, Pierre Paradis, commissioned a report on FPAQ and the industry—just how far could that 72 percent fall?
While giving proper credit to the cartel, the report, noting, among other things, how readily journalists like me compare FPAQ to OPEC, called on the federation to loosen its rules, scrap its quotas, and let a thousand flowers bloom. “It’s a mafia,” a producer who has defied the cartel recently said to The Globe and Mail of FPAQ. “Last year, they tried to seize my syrup. I had to [move the product into New Brunswick] at night. This year, they hit me with an injunction.”
And what about that most troubling of unintended consequences: the black market, the subterranean world of contraband sap where wildcatters move unmarked barrels through Elmore Leonard country, the seedy history behind your stack of morning hotcakes or pancakes, or, as they insisted everywhere I went, crêpes. Especially interesting are the criminals, pirates of syrup nation, who, attracted by the peak prices, skulk through warehouses, waiting for the watchman to doze off over his Hockey News as the getaway truck idles.
ere’s how it works: there are 13,500 maple-syrup producers in Quebec. Each is permitted to send a fixed amount to FPAQ for sale that year, a quota that was established in 2004, even as U.S. production has exploded (up 27 percent from 2015). Members of the federation—Quebec’s bulk producers are required to join—give their harvest over to FPAQ, which inspects, tastes, and grades the syrup. Some of it is sold immediately; the rest is stored in the Reserve. Producers are paid only when the syrup is sold, which can mean years. FPAQ keeps $54 for each barrel, a kind of tax that pays for the advertising, the testing of the recipes, the upkeep of the Reserve, and so on. In this way, the federation steadies supply, filling the coffers in banner years, satisfying demand in fallow. In this way, the price of syrup is stabilized, benefiting even the competitors across the border.
The Reserve is in Laurierville, a town in the heart of Quebec. Steeples, snowy roads, hills, old men in berets eating croissants at McDonald’s. It’s reached via spotless highways where no one tailgates or cuts you off or honks in anger. It’s just the polite double beep in Quebec, a state of play that seems connected to how most syrup producers have been content to leave the free market for the safety of a cartel. It’s a better life, with less road rage, but also not as colorful, nor as interesting, and forget about the windfall and resulting spree.
Caroline Cyr met me at the back door of the Reserve and took me on a tour. As I said, it’s the holy of holies, where oceans of syrup, the accumulated wealth of Canadian forests, hibernates, sometimes for months, sometimes for years. I had a clear mental picture of the Reserve: huge vats, surface crusted and covered with flies; tanks reached by tottering ziggurats; visitors in perpetual danger of falling in and doing the slowest, stickiest, sweetest dead man’s float of all time. In fact, the Reserve, which might hold 7.5 million gallons on a typical day, is a warehouse filled with barrels, white drums stacked from floor to ceiling, nearly 20 feet high. There was a Charles Sheeler-like quality to the place, an industrial awesomeness, the barrels in endless rows, the implied weight of them, persnickety and precise in a way that seems especially Canadian. It’s almost like the life we know, but not quite. It’s so close, yet so different. A treasure trove, with inventory, at any given time, worth perhaps $185 million. The syrup is tested when it comes in, then sent through a Willie Wonka-esque conveyor system where it’s pasteurized and sealed in a barrel, forklifted and stacked. Each barrel carries a label with a grade (Extra Light, Light, Medium, Amber, Dark) and percentage. When maple water exits a maple tree, it’s 2 to 4 percent sugar. As it’s boiled, the sugar concentrates. To be syrup, it must be 66 percent sugar. Below that, it’s not stable. Above 69 percent, it turns into something else. Butter. Taffy. Candy. There were two or three guys cruising around on forklifts, in hairnets. “We’re all waiting for the spring,” Cyr told me, “when this place will be filled with barrels.” Being in syrup is like being a tax accountant. Three or four weeks of intensity followed by months of waiting and wondering.
I asked Cyr if there’d ever been a spill. She looked at me like I was a fool. I told her about a molasses spill that had once smothered Boston’s North End, a wave that upended trees, drove horses mad, and killed 21. “No,” she said calmly. “We have never had a spill.”
t was the Lufthansa heist of the syrup world. In the summer of 2012, on one of those July days when the first hint of autumn cools the northern forest, Michel Gauvreau began his precarious climb up the barrels in St.-Louis-de-Blandford, a town outside Laurierville, where part of the Reserve was stored in a rented warehouse. Once a year, FPAQ takes an inventory of the barrels. Gauvreau was near the top of the stack when one of the barrels teetered, then nearly gave way. “He almost fell,” Cyr said, pausing to let the picture form. A small man, astride a tower of syrup, realizing, suddenly, there’s nothing beneath his feet. Normally, weighing more than 600 pounds when filled, the barrels are sturdy, so something was clearly amiss. When Gauvreau knocked on the barrel, it tolled like a gong. When he unscrewed the cap, he discovered it empty. At first, it seemed like this might have been a glitch, a mistake, but soon more punk barrels were found—many more. Even barrels that seemed full had been emptied of syrup and filled with water—a sure sign of thieves who’d covered their tracks. My God, they could be in Thunder Bay by now! In most cases, when a boring, bureaucratic job turns interesting, there’s trouble.
Inspectors called FPAQ HQ and sounded the alarm. Just like that, the facility was swarming with cops. It was a great mystery. There were no security cameras. Who would steal syrup? And, even if some sick bastard wanted to, what would he carry it away in? How far could he get?
The investigation was headed by the Sûreté du Québec police [Quebec provincial police], which was soon joined by the Royal Mounties and U.S. Customs. They promised to spare no expense. These heartless criminals would be brought to justice, and the syrup, described as “hot,” would be recovered. About 300 people were questioned, 40 search warrants executed. It was not O.J. and the knife. It was not the bearded doctor and one-armed man. But it was special, strange. There was something stirring about making off with all that syrup; it boggled the mind. It felt less like a crime than a prank, what you might do to your brother if you were all-powerful and he had a lot of syrup. Of course it was serious business to FPAQ; nearly 540,000 gallons of syrup had been stolen—12.5 percent of the Reserve—with a street value of $13.4 million. It became known as the Great Maple Syrup Heist and was said to be among the most fantastic agricultural crimes ever committed, which, granted, is an odd subset. Everyone figured it was people who’d done it—Martians don’t love syrup—but no one could figure out how. “Try to think up the scenario and it’s impossible,” a friendly hotel waiter told me in Montreal. “Syrup is heavy. And sticky. How do you hide it? Who do you get to smuggle it? Where can you sell it? It’s like stealing the salt out of the sea.”
It was most likely an inside job. Not a member of FPAQ—though rogue syrup producers have their theories—nor a manufacturer, but a tenant who happened to be renting space in the same facility. That would mean access: keys, ID card, reason to be there. FPAQ supplied the motive. The value of the commodity, the tight control of supply, the resulting black market. (In the post-apocalyptic world, as Mad Max runs the gauntlet for petrol, Canucks will be fighting over those last precious drops of genuine maple.) Several conspirators were pursued, including alleged ringleaders Avik Caron and Richard Vallières. Working with a handful of others, some with knowledge of the trade, they apparently went after the bounty like Mickey in the Night Kitchen, dreaming their dream between midnight and dawn, when the world is half realized, insubstantial. According to the prosecutor, the gang would truck barrels out of the Reserve to a sugar shack where they would siphon the syrup in the way you siphon gasoline from a semi, feeding it, a cask at a time, into their own ramshackle barrels and then re-filling the originals with water. As the operation grew, the masterminds allegedly brought on accomplices and began siphoning the syrup directly from barrels in the Reserve. Nearly 10,000 barrels of syrup were stolen and trucked to points south and east, where the market is free. So far, prosecutors have brought four men to trial.
https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/12 ... yrup-heist
The case was worked in the textbook way. Chase down every lead, question every witness, identify the ringleaders. In December 2012, the police arrested two alleged ringleaders and one other suspect. A large portion of the syrup would ultimately be recovered. It took serious sleuthing. The story of the heist is currently being developed as a movie, starring Jason Segel. I don’t know much about the movie, but my guess is the criminals will be the protagonists. That’s how Hollywood usually does it. But it’s the cops who achieved the miraculous. If it’s hard to steal syrup, imagine how much harder it is to recover syrup that’s been stolen. Like oil, syrup is a fungible commodity. Once it’s on the market, it’s just syrup. Oil is oil. Syrup is syrup.
So how did they do it?
Gumshoe policework, retracing the footsteps of the criminals, following their trail through the black market, a trail that led past lonely crossroads and out of Quebec. The goods were scattered: some of it in New Brunswick, which is as loose with syrup as Deadwood was with silver claims; some of it across the border in Vermont, stashed in the factory of a candy-maker who swore he had no goddamn idea the syrup was hot. Several of the crooks have pleaded guilty and have paid fines or are serving sentences. Vallières has pleaded not guilty to trafficking and fraud. The other alleged ringleader, Avik Caron, has pleaded not guilty to theft, conspiracy, and fraud. He allegedly cooked up the conspiracy and is to go on trial in January. He could get 14 years, but that’s in Canadian, so I’m not exactly sure.
A few snippets. It reminds me of the great British comedies of the 1950s - The Lavender Hill Mob and The Lady Killers (the original not the Coen brothers version). They're on Youtube.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." - Daniel Patrick Moynihan